Lawyers assigned by judges to represent children and low-income litigants in New York state courts in matters such as child neglect and domestic violence are demanding their first pay raise in nearly two decades.

The private attorneys, paid by the government to represent people who can’t afford a lawyer, receive no more than $75 an hour, a rate set in 2004. They started pressing Gov. Kathy Hochul to increase the rate to $150 an hour, comparable with what lawyers who do similar work in federal courts are paid, and said they want it done by April 1.

In support of their call for the wage increase, the New York City Family Court Judges Association wrote to Hochul in January. It said there are “hundreds” of new cases in courthouses across the five boroughs that need to be assigned to attorneys everyday.

However, in the last six months, there have been days when no lawyers were available to take on the work.

“As judges, we observe daily the heartbreaking impact the inadequate supply of attorneys has on the children and families who come before us, and it is not an overstatement to assert that our system for providing counsel to indigent litigants in Family Court is in a crisis,” the association said.

The number of lawyers who participated in the Attorney for Children program declined by nearly 30% since 2018, according to Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks, who oversees the day-to-day operations of the statewide court system. The shortage of attorneys exacerbates already excessive caseloads, leading to delays and jeopardizing the quality of legal representation for litigants.

The state legislature included the pay increase in their budget proposals and set aside $210 million to pay for the wage increase, said Jonathan Heppner, a spokesman for the New York State Senate Democratic Conference.

The governor’s office did not respond to emails seeking comment. The proposals are subject to negotiations as she and legislators hammer out a state budget due April 1.

In New York, one of the ways in which low-income litigants receive free legal representation is through Attorney for Children and the Assigned Counsel panels, commonly referred to as 18B.

Attorney Joseph Nivin used to accept court-appointed cases as a lawyer on the Queens 18B panel from 2011 to 2017 but stopped due to the meager pay and the long hours, which left him no time to manage his private law practice or his personal life at a time when he and his now-spouse were planning a wedding.

“I wouldn't finish my workday until usually about nine o'clock and I really didn't want to go into a marriage doing that,” Nivin said.

Nivin’s said his clients included housekeepers, Uber drivers, home health aides, and homeless individuals. Once, he said he represented an adjunct professor. The myriad of cases in the program include parents accused of abusing or neglecting their children and people who may be thrown in jail or prison for failing to pay child support.

“Now as a private attorney, one frustration that I have is that often attorneys on the Assigned Counsel panel are very difficult to get a hold of to engage in settlement discussions,” Nivin said. “And I know why. Because they don't really have the time to do that.”

Another attorney, Veronica Escobar, who has been practicing law for 18 years, left the Assigned Counsel Program in 2018.

“The main reason was the low compensation,” said Escobar. “In order for a person to do well on the panel, it meant amassing a very large caseload. And when you amass a large caseload, the people that suffer ultimately are the clients that you serve.”

Sarah Tirgary, president of the Assigned Counsel Association of New York State, which has about 400 members, said the group hired a firm to lobby lawmakers and sued the state in July for the pay raise.

The association said it also wants the state to add a cost-of-living provision to the statute to ensure future pay would keep up with inflation.

“The state really needs to step it up. And if anybody who is going to do that, I would think it would be Kathy Hochul because of her awareness of the importance of helping victims of domestic violence and other more vulnerable members of our community,” Tirgary said.

If not, Tirgary said the lawyers will continue the fight for a pay raise in court.